Wednesday, March 18, 2009

If Andre Thomas is not insane, the insanity-defense law is

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that capital murderer Andre Thomas, who plucked out both eyes while incarcerated awaiting his death sentence - and ate one of them - "is clearly 'crazy,' but he is also 'sane' under Texas law," reports the Dallas News.

What that tells me is that we're confronting a bad law if it's so constricting the state's highest criminal court doesn't have leeway to deliver justice in cases where the defendant's criminal behavior is clearly driven by mental illness. It's just ridiculous to send somebody who's so obviously nuts to death row - what's the moral point of killing a guy who'd mutilate himself to death if you let him? What's the insanity defense for if not cases like this one?

These are deep, murky waters the court has waded into to fish out yet another questionable death sentence from the drink, exposing either an inherent bias on the court, some poorly written law, or possibly both.

Judge Cathy Cochran, in a concurring opinion, said she voted thusly knowing that Thomas "has a severe mental illness. He suffers from psychotic delusions and perhaps from schizophrenia." (Duh ... d'ya think?! He hears voices, plucked his own eyes out, and ate one.)

Bottom line: The trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals accepted the prosecution's argument that, although Thomas "was psychotic when he committed the offense, ... his psychosis was triggered by his substance abuse in the preceding days and weeks." So he was psychotic, but it was his fault. Still, how can the court just assume Thomas' substance abuse wasn't a symptom of his mental illness - a form of self-medication, perhaps? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals believe they can tell: "Applicant is clearly 'crazy,' but he is also 'sane' under Texas law," wrote Judge Cochran. If that's true, what does that Orwellian distinction tell you about Texas' law?

RELATED: See Dr. Lucy Puryear's excellent discussion of the issues at Women in Crime Ink.


Anonymous said...

The "insanity defense" is not the "I'm insane so don't punish me defense." It is the "I didn't know I was committing a crime defense." Just because you are psychotic doesn't mean you aren't aware that your behavior is against the law. If I have delusion that my father is the Pope, and I hate Catholics, so I murder him, should I get acquitted because I intended to murder the Pope but only murdered a regular guy?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If you're that insane and delusional, does parsing your intentions really matter?

TxBluesMan said...

Unfortunately Grits, Anon 4:57 is correct.

The tragedy in this case is that due to the 'improvements' made to the mental health system, he was able to just walk away from MHMR and from the local hospital psych area just days before he brutally killed his ex-wife and children.

One can be loony yet still be legally sane.

Maybe, if we went back to locking up those that are crazy and not releasing them, then locking them up again, etc., Andre's ex and children would still be alive.

Anonymous said...

Well I guess he won't have to see his mother in law at the execution.

Anonymous said...

This depresses the hell out of me. The court's concurring opinion, which I just read, shows this man has been grossly psychotic for a long, long time, and that he was psychotic when he killed his family.

The posts from Anonymous and TxBluesMan in addition to those in the newspaper are almost more distressing than the defendant and his actions.

Too many ordinary people do not understand mental illness and seem to think its a "choice." Bet these same folks think people "choose" to be gay. Clearly neither is true.

Y'all are too lazy to use the brains God and yo mama gave you.

Rage Judicata said...

Maybe, if we went back to locking up those that are crazy and not releasing them, then locking them up again, etc., Andre's ex and children would still be alive.

And who do you blame for that? The "libs" or Reagan?

The issue that is whizzing over your head is that the Texas definition of insane in criminal cases is different than the actual definition. If we fix that, we can lock more people up, as opposed to putting them to death. The United States is in fine company with its death penalty practices. Countries like Iran, China, the Sudan, etc., all share our system of justice in that regard. Teh US us the only first world nation still executing people.

You may call them all liberal, but maybe we're behind the times on this one.

TxBluesMan said...

Anon 7:12,

I don't think that you understand my position.

I clearly understand that mental illness is not a choice.

Had the touchy-feely crowd not gutted our laws on putting the potentially dangerous loons in state mental hospitals and keeping them there, 3 people would still be alive. Had MHMR or the hospital been able to force him to stay, there would have been no dead bodies.

Mentally ill or not, a jury found that he knew what he was doing was wrong. I have no problem with his execution.

The ones I feel for are his victims.

If you want to blame someone, use your brain and look in the mirror. If the state won't lock them up to treat 'em, most Texas juries know what to do...

Anonymous said...

So are the mentally ill supposed to stay in facilities forever, or is the goal supposed to be to stabilize them, then release them under a care plan that includes therapy and medication? Except medicine and highly qualified psychiatric professionals are expensive, and it's hard to force a delusional person to ingest medication or follow a dosage schedule. If a person does not have the money to pay for their own intensive treatment, they become a danger to the community and themselves, and the criminal justice system picks up the financial tab after victims have suffered most of all. This is a money issue at the heart, and blaming libs or repubs doesn't change the fact that Texans don't like paying taxes for the high-cost treatment that mental health patients require.

Anonymous said...

Had the touchy-feely crowd not gutted our laws on putting the potentially dangerous loons in state mental hospitals and keeping them there

The mentally ill do have elevated crime rates. But so do young men, those with ADHD, those with low intelligence and African-Americans. The state never has any authority to deny freedom to someone who has done nothing wrong. Frankly I would rather prisons handle the mentally ill than go back to the days of mass involuntary commitment.

W W Woodward said...

Rabid dogs cannot control their behavior. The solution is, kill them. Rabid humans may not be able to control their behavior either. Same solution!

Right and wrong doesn't have a damn thing to do with it.

As long as Texas has a death penalty on the books, use it! Or, get rid of the death penalty and keep the poor SOBs locked up for the rest of their lives.

Letting a murderer loose to commit another murder just because someone with a degree determines he can't control his behavior is the insanity.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Rage hit the nail on the head writing, "The issue that is whizzing over your head is that the Texas definition of insane in criminal cases is different than the actual definition. If we fix that, we can lock more people up, as opposed to putting them to death." That was my point. I don't dispute what the law is. I'm saying it's a crappy law that compounds tragedy instead of mitigates it. 9:17's comments IMO are also spot on.

Bluesman, you protest a bit too much on this one. You don't get to BOTH claim you'd like more mental health treatment capacity AND you'd kill him without remorse, blaming "liberals" for preventing both outcomes - that's arguing out of both sides of your mouth.

woodward - nobody advocated cutting Thomas loose, so don't be ridiculous. But putting down a mentally ill human and a rabid dog are two different things. I suppose it's comforting to indulge in such simplistic silliness if it keeps you from having to think too seriously about morality or the essence of what makes people human. I do agree with you that "right and wrong doesn't have a damn thing to do" with this court decision. Nothing at all, IMO.

Anonymous said...

I scarcely know where to begin... The general understanding of mental illness and that includes both the legal profession and the medical profession is so grossly lacking, it, in itself, is criminal. What causes behavior out of the norm? Nature or nurture? BOTH. There MUCH is evidence that brain chemical imbalances can cause extreme behaviors. There is also MUCH evidence that trauma, whether it was abuse or accidental, can cause abherrant behavior. IN EITHER CASE, this individual did not CHOOSE to have this abnormal brain activity. The jump in logic that the individual is then LEGALLY responsible defies both logic and any moral compass in our society. DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND: This does not mean they are not a danger to themselves or others. What is sorely missing in the equation is a real solution for the mentally ill and dangerous that is both moral and safe. Again, I find it hard to believe that in this "enlightened"(a term I use loosely) age, we cannot come up with adequate care for human beings who are "miswired".
As far as comments like: " just because you are psychotic doesn't mean you aren't aware that your behavior is against the law"... PLEASE look up the medical definition of PYSCHOTIC.
As for killing "rabid people"... Why stop there. People who litter piss me off, kill them, dumb people... Hitler, Stalin, Mao all had the same idea.

Anonymous said...

Pleading insanity, per anon & Blues is; "I did not know what I was doing" defense.
That defense is routinely used by those who have a license to enforce the law. And the defense almost always prevails with the "qualified immunity" Law created by the Judicial Department of our US government to circumvent the Law of Congress 42 USC 1983.
Prosecutors and other government attorneys routinely use the same excuse for their crimes. They have a law degree but cannot understand ("interprete") the same language the rest of us utilize every day.
It is amazing how cowardly so many present day Texans are. They are so afraid a Killer might escape a maximum security prison or institution for the criminally insane - They must insist on executions to feel safe.
Andre Thomas is a Mercy Killing.
This case is similar to one in Ohio 30 + years ago when I was attending a University there. The man was sent to the prison for the criminally insane. As a result the media looked at the otherewise ignored prison. It is the definition of hell on earth. Being executed is more merciful.
What is insane is the present criminal justice system crafted by those who profit from it.

Anonymous said...

The insanity defense as it currently exists on the books is simply absurd. Boiling "insanity" down to a simple knowledge of right and wrong is ludicrous. Just like many issues, the real world isn't so simple. The classic example is compulsion disorders. What if a person has a mental illness that compels them into illegal action (due to their illness they have no choice or are operating on auto-pilot) but have knowledge of right/wrong? Under the current standard they have no mental health defense.

The bottom line is Texas is WAY behind the times when it comes to the intersection of the criminal justice system in science/medicine. Our whole system is. The insanity defense is just one glaring example.

Anonymous said...

What all of you are missing, at least as this case is concerned, is the fact that the jury in the case determined, on the basis of expert testimony, that the defendant KNEW he was committing a crime. Had the jury believed that he was incapable of controlling himself, they had the option at the punishment phase to find that his mitigating circumstances reduced his moral culpability enough to justify a life sentence instead of death. The jury did not believe that. You all want to second-guess the jury, even though you weren't there to hear the evidence. You want to say the jury was wrong because you personally think you woul dhave held differently, although you ignore the fact that other psychological experts testified that he was NOT insane.

If you think that jury verdicts like this one can't be trusted, then you need to come forward and say that the jury system is what you object to. If you want only judges or elected officials to decide these issues, then say so, and admit that you think jurors aren't smart enough to deal with these issues, and only the elite in our society should be allowed to decide what's best for everyone.

Anonymous said...

Gritsforbreakfast said...
If you're that insane and delusional, does parsing your intentions really matter?

Of course it does? Do you really think that a person who intentionally commits a crime is any less morally culpable because he thought he was committing some other crime instead? That's like saying if I shoot at you and hit your friend instead, I should be acquitted because I didn't intend to kill your friend. In terms of my moral culpability there is no difference.

Anonymous said...

You don't make major policy decisions based on the unusual facts of one case. That's insane.

Anonymous said...

Just further proof that Texas sucks. Glad I moved away from that hellhole.

Anonymous said...

To clear up on misconception. If he had been found not guilty by reason of insanity, he would not have been set free and sent home. He would have been sent to a mental institution until the trial judge rules he can be released. He could be kept for years or the rest of his life. Of course, current Texas law prohibits a jury from knowing this. Juries are not told what happens to someone once they find him or her NGBRI.

Anonymous said...

The outcome in criminal hearings are set up (theoretically) to be decided by a group of people rather than one or two "experts." The expert gives testimony but the jury decides what to do. One problem that I see with this system in Texas is that the jury is not allowed to know what happens if they find a person NGRI (not guilty by reasons of insanity). What typically happens is that person is committed to a state hospital and usually stays there for a long time. Research indicates that usually longer than their sentence would typically be (precluding a death sentence). Without this information, the jury is led to believe that the defendant will get released back into the community. With that in mind, I do not blame any jury for a determination of guilty - for the mere aspect of protecting the public. At present, there is a bill to change this law to allow the jury to know what might happen to a defendant AND to change the terminology from "KNOW" to "APPRECIATE". Although it is one word, it is a big change in the meaning of the law. If you agree with this change, let your legislators know this. It takes about as much time as posting a comment on a blog. My 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

There are some who don't understand the definition of insanity in Texas. When the law says a person has to know what they did was wrong, courts have interpreted that to mean "illegal." So, a person can be insane and believe that their killing is morally right and justified by God, but if he or she is aware that it is against the law, Texas courts find them "sane."

Soronel Haetir said...

Rage Judica,

One question I have regarding your comment, do you not consider Japan and Singapore to be part of the first world?

While I would agree that the US has a particularly punative bent, the US also has an extremely permissive atmosphere in many non-ciminal matters. I see these two forces as reasonable balance toggles.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting topic. Central the issue is defining "insanity". Is insanity simply behavior that shocks society? How do you distinguish between the sane and insane? Is one not insane simply for acting out in a particular way condemned by society? Just something to think about.

Canadian courts found the man who attacked and decapitated a bus passenger not guilty by reason of insanity.

Canada judge: Man not responsible for beheading>

Anonymous said...

"You don't make major policy decisions based on the unusual facts of one case. That's insane."

Oh really.. Then tell that to the Government. Every Year they come out with another new law named for a little girl..

And as for putting rabid dogs down, I think that we should also put old guys wearing safari helmets trying to relive something they were never part of in the list as well. I mean hell, that IS insane.

TxBluesMan said...


The lack of effective mental health controls is exactly at the heart of the problem. The liberal view towards 'catch and release' of the dangerously psychotic is what allowed Andre to commit the heinous crime that he was convicted for. A jury found that he knew that what he was doing was wrong and that he would be a danger to the public in the future. I'm not going to second guess them - they heard the evidence. So, no, I have no remorse for him being put to death for his crimes.

Anon 6:28,

I am familiar with the definition of psychotic and the attendant problems that come with their distorted view of reality. It does not necessarily mean that they cannot distinguish right from wrong, and they should be held to account for any crimes that they commit.

Anon 6:36,

Qualified immunity and insanity defenses are two completely different animals.


Since you are part of the defense bar, what is your solution to the issue? Do you favor the ALI model or what?

Charlie O,

We're glad you're not here too...

Anonymous said...

"what's the moral point of killing a guy who'd mutilate himself to death if you let him?"

A more humane way to die?

"how can the court just assume Thomas' substance abuse wasn't a symptom of his mental illness"

They don't assume it. They had a trial about it and the jury considered the evidence. The court assumes only that the jury, in their role as finder of fact, found the correct facts.

W W Woodward said...

OOOh, Got your attention. Now I can take my tongue out of cheek.

Just what attributes, or set of same, makes a person human? Could it be compassion for those of lessor mental or physical or fiscal attributes? Could it be an opposable thumb, self awareness, the capacity of experiencing guilt?

How should an entity, recognized as human, treat those beings not possessing the qualities the "norm" considers human?

Just what degree of sociopathic aberrant behavior does it take to merit someone's removal from the human race and who should make the decision?

I am associated, on a daily basis, with people who have been accused, and some convicted, of transgressing Texas and/or federal statutes. All of these people can and do rationalize the behavior that resulted in their incarceration.

Where was Thomas’ compassion for his fellow humans when he committed the act for which he has been condemned? And, now tell me, I should have compassion for the poor blind fool.

As far as the death penalty is concerned, every person who has ever been executed in the State of Texas has been found guilty of the crime for which he was sentenced and executed, whatever his mental state happened to be at the time he committed the crime.

Would it make any difference to those of you who disagree with my rabid dog comparison if the poor insane animal had been killed just prior to or during his insane act of the criminal homicide of the innocents he killed?

You people who have had no association with some of the bottom dwellers in our society and who desperately want to believe that all men have some good hidden somewhere within have no idea.

Whether you agree or disagree with the convicted person’s sentence and ultimate fate is presently irrelevant.

If you do not agree with Texas statutes concerning the death penalty get off your dead fundaments and, either run for an office that will allow you to make what you consider appropriate changes, or convince your representatives (hired hands) to change the statutes.

Anonymous said...

In Texas, as in other places, individuals with mental illness and limited access to sufficient legal representation are FREQUENTLY convicted, regardless of guilt. I am a huge fan of the jury system. I am also a critic of how cases are presented to said jury. A prosecutor, unchallenged, can make Grandma Moses look guilty of serial killing. "Expert" winesses can sway facts anyway the prosecution wishes and inadequate defense, especially in a case that looks SO barbaric, does little to present any balancing information. I have EXTENSIVE experience with individuals in the criminal justice system who have mental illness, both on a personal level and in my career. I do not wear rose colored glasses, but I seem to have clearer long distance vision than the current law.
I will say this slowly . . .
Individuals with severe/violent mental illnesses SHOULD NOT be let loose in society, NOR should they be put to death(this is a Constitutional protection). This is not a debate on the death sentence, itself. AGAIN, the current state of our mental health system is abyssmal. THAT MUST CHANGE. For many reasons, mental illness is at epidemic proportions and our present resources are neither adequate or helpful. This IS society's problem and we, as a society, must address it.

Txblu: You may be familiar with definitions, but I question you comprehension. You cannot be both suffering from psychosis and have logical reasoning abilities. Think of it this way: You can't be dead AND have a pulse and respiration.

Then there was: "Where was Thomas's compassion for his fellow humans...." AGAIN: Do a bit of research on pyschotic/sociopathic behavior. IGNORANCE is a worse crime than any individual murder. It corrupts our very culture.

I will repeat that, as a society, we need to think outside the box. Responding to the mentally ill in the same way we have for hundreds of years will not work. It hasn't so far. If we intend to keep the public safe, we must do a better job identifying people who are at risk and providing REAL, long term treatment BEFORE they have committed extreme acts. Our current system seems based on closing the barn door after the horses are out. It is ludicrous, at best and tragic at worst. We, the SANE individuals, are ultimately responsible for not using the resources and information we have to keep ourselves and these individuals safe.

Anonymous said...

”IGNORANCE is a worse crime than any individual murder”

Bzzzt WRONG You've just managed to discredit your entire spiel with this one moronic sentiment.

"You can't be dead AND have a pulse and respiration."

Oh yeah? Ask Terry Schiavo. Oh wait, she's dead.

”we need to think outside the box. Responding to the mentally ill in the same way we have for hundreds of years will not work.”

Compassion doesn’t work. The actions that caused Mrs. Schiavo to cease to have a pulse and respiration were not murder. Her diminished mental capacity rendered her a non-person even though she was technically human. It is time we think outside the box and consider all mentally ill humans as non-persons. Don’t think of Andre Thomas’ fate as execution, but rather extermination. Cutting off a tumor isn’t the same thing as removing a viable limb or organ.

Anonymous said...

"Whether you agree or disagree with the convicted person’s sentence and ultimate fate is presently irrelevant."

Ruben Cantu
Larry Swearingen
Johnny Garrett

Need any more? There are TONS. The death of an innocent person, whether by wrongful identification or because the tried individual was not in fact in control of their facilities makes then no less human and infallible.

And how exactly does a normal person come to a conclusion that ANY other human being is devoid of human characteristics? When does an individual stop being a human, unless ofcourse the 'normal' human has stripped that individual of his human identifiers to begin with?

It is too easy to say HE/SHE is a monster, when in fact that act of stating such lowers you in the eyes of humanity. Although the answers are unclear as to what to do with those of us that are mentally less functional, it can also be said that simply putting the needle in them should not be an alternative.

TxBluesMan said...

Anon 3:33 said:
it can also be said that simply putting the needle in them should not be an alternative

If needles are the issue, I have no problems with returning to public hangings on the county courthouse lawn...

Unknown said...

Thank you for saying this plain & simple! I heard about this horrifying story when it happened during Gov Perry's infamous statewide lockdown, but was saddened that it was not even reported by anyone in the mainstream press until months later in a short article released by AP. Clearly the law is not serving the interests of public safety or the mentally ill by allowing sick people like Mr Thomas to be locked up in a concrete box & forgotten about. He hears voices that tell him to pluck out his eye - and then he eats it? Why does this not shock us enough to make all the papers in Texas? Are we that far gone? And by the way, treating the mentally ill instead of executing them is not only clearly the right & humane thing to do, it actually costs the taxpayers less than the death penalty process.

TxBluesMan said...


Who speaks for his victims?

In a case like this, the jury does, and they sentenced him to die.

Sure, he's sick. But I am a hell of lot more comfortable with his execution than the revolving door that is the current mental health system in Texas.

Unknown said...

Tx Blues
Better the revolving door of the mental health system than the revolving door of the death chamber, as Texas is now infamous for, the world over. Every murder is a terrible tragedy and another death will not mitigate the wounds the victim's family has suffered. It will perpetuate the violence and victimization, hand to hand. You have very strong views - views I used to share! - but I am certain you do not realize how the death penalty itself actually plays out. It is an endless tragedy for everyone involved. Peel back a layer or two - read both sides.

Anonymous said...

Migal, I'm not sure what Terry S. has to do with any of this. Poor Ms. Schiavo was in an vegetative state, NOT dead OR mentally ill. Mr. Thomas is alive and CLEARLY mentally ill. He is not a "tumor" as some would phrase it. (Again, I want to go back to comparisons with any other mass murder/genocidist) Who decides which people should go because of their defects? As to who speaks for the victims? I think public sentiment usually favors the victim ( I agree with them myself). I am a fan of the jury system, but it is fallible and subject to the information(correct or not) it is presented with. This is not about the "victims" at this point, EVERYONE in this situation becomes a victim. This is about what to do about the mentally ill and especially those who are a danger to society. Although the statement "Compassion doesn't work" sends chills through me, this is not about being "warm and fuzzy". This is about using the medical, scientific and pyschological methods we have in this "advanced" day and age to deal with members of our society who have a chemical or traumatic brain dysfunction.
The system and attitudes in place are not fiscally, morally or ethically responsible.

Anonymous said...

May I suggest looking at

A super, downloadable book on TX criminal procedure and mental health, including discussion of the flaws in the current insanity laws.

Oh, and if you have some spare change, please flip it in the direction of NAMI - an excellent non-profit working on behalf of the mentally ill, and relevant legislative reform.


Anonymous said...

You know, there are many people here that think that insane is a medical or psychological term. It is not, it is a legal term.

Legally insane persons did not know what they did was wrong or they caused their inability to tell right from wrong by voluntary intoxication.

My belief is that people in this country have lost their ability to hold themselves accountable.

I am sorry that this man has mental problems but we must do something to ensure that the Texas people, prison inmates and prison officials are protected from this murderer. Regardless of his mental condition, he has proven himself to be deadly to other humans and the only was to make 100 percent sure that he does not kill or harm others again will be to end his life.

If Grits proposes to change the legal definition of insanity he proposes to change almost 300 years of jurisprudence and would foster a new age of false insanity pleas.

Aren't we soft enough on crime already?

I would be more apt to hear Grits arguments if we were able to place people in mental hospitals again involuntarily. Instead we rely on jails and prisons for our mental health.

I think there are only two solutions.

1. Build a mental health system that is run by competent mental health professions.

2. Euthanize deadly individuals in society to protect the populace....

Anonymous said...

300 Years of Jurisprudence? If you're referring to the M'Naghten case (yes, that is the correct spelling) and its impact on Texas law, it dates from 1843 and is viewed by virtually all modern legal scholars in this field as hopelessly flawed. But since you're so busy contemplating mass euthanasia, I doubt that you're going to take the time doing any real reading around the subject, let alone any thinking. By the way who gets to choose the people who are to be "euthanized" in your scenario? You?

And BTW, people are committed to mental hospitals against their will - civil commitments happen every day. But people sometimes get released too early because there are insufficient resources to provide the level of staffing on cases that would ensure something closer to fail-safe release policies. And there is always pressure to release in marginal cases because the beds are in such demand.

Moreover, if you care to research the topic of predictions of future dangerousness in e.g. capital cases and in civil commitment cases, the tendency is for there to be massive over-prediction of dangerousness i.e. people being sentenced to death, or committed, who do not go on to be violent. Wouldn't you be just a tad concerned that mass executions, sorry "euthanizations", might sweep up some people who aren't really a threat?

Anonymous said...

Wow, almost everyone believes that forced commitments are a great tool and should be expanded. I support Szasz.

Unknown said...

I lived right down the road from Andre and his father Dan lived right next door to us. I believe that Andre was crazy an so was his father also but, I think Andre was sane when he murdered his family. I mean when I heard how he brutalized his family like that; of course I was shocked and didn't believe at first. I've sat and had a actually conversation with him many of times and never would I have thought he would have done this to his family. He was the one who always took care of his kids while the mother was out hoohawing around. When he killed his family was just after he found out that his daughter wasn't his. He was enraged and said that he would was going to kill himself and everything and I think he planned the whole thing. Just before he went to his familys apartment. Andre may be crazy but, he knew what he was doing that morning! And Andre pulling his eye out of socket and talking to god and all this nonsense was just for show so he could get off. But, I still pray for his existing family because, they are my friends and I know what they have to go through now because, of this unspeakable tragedy. You guys may or may not agree with what I have said but, I know Andre personally.